A modern approach to medieval acoustics

Mariana Lopez

Dr Mariana Lopez is a Post Doctoral Researcher at our Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute (CoDE). She has a background in music and sound design and completed her PhD at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television (University of York) in 2013.

A modern approach to medieval acoustics

Most of the research regarding medieval arts and culture has centred on music, writing and visual arts. The study of the acoustics of performance spaces, especially for medieval drama, has been neglected. Research jumps from Greek and Roman acoustics to the Globe Theatre in late Elizabethan times. Medieval acoustics are generally only mentioned when discussing religious buildings and this work focuses solely on internal acoustics. But what went on culturally outside such buildings? In York, in the United Kingdom, the answer is ‘quite a lot’, and acoustics mattered greatly.

To further this area of research, Dr Mariana Lopez has been working in the field of virtual acoustics to digitally model and recreate the acoustic environments of York streets during medieval times. In particular, Mariana has examined how street acoustics may have influenced the development and performance of the York Mystery Plays.

The York Mystery Plays were performed to audiences in public streets by members of the craft guilds, who used wagons as their stage. Auditory aspects, along with the words themselves, were central to conveying the messages contained in the plays, more so than the physical movements of the performers. This would have presented unique challenges, as Mariana explains: “Performances had to be heard over the sound of the normal workings of the streets, including frequent church bells and a cacophony of pedestrian activity.”

Mariana’s research attempts to demonstrate that there is more to the spaces used for medieval drama than we have considered until now. “This is mostly measurable through something called Interaural Cross-correlation Coeficient (IACC_Early),” adds Mariana, “which is related to the early sound reflections arriving at the sides of the listener and that make sound sources seem broader than they are. It is very possible that medieval drama organisers knew how to modify the staging conditions of their plays – from the use of wagons to the position of performers – to make the most of the acoustics of the street spaces.

In addition to giving us a better understanding of our cultural history, there are modern applications for this research. “For instance, we have evidence that may help us make informed decisions about how to preserve and restore our relatively untouched medieval streets,” says Mariana.

Research matters

What inspired you?

When I was a Masters student at York, I read about work in the field of acoustical heritage. I found the idea fascinating, being able to not only focus on the visual aspects of a site, but to also think about how we can learn from past cultures through the acoustics of buildings and, in this case, our very streets.

Any surprises?

I was surprised by the acoustical characteristics of the particular street space I studied: Stonegate, in central York. This space, which in many ways wouldn’t seem ideal for the performance of the sung parts of the plays, turned out to have some acoustical characteristics equivalent to those found in concert halls of a very high standard.

Why does this research matter?

The York Mystery Plays are a key aspect of York’s cultural heritage. Their importance to York is demonstrated by the fact that the wagon plays are still performed there every four years, with a large number of people from the wider community participating. I think it’s important that we use new digital technologies to study these historical events to help them, in some ways, remain alive for modern audiences.

Research funding

Department of Theatre, Film and

Television (University of York)

The International Office (University of York)

The Audio Engineering Society

Reading matter

The Application of Impulse Response Measurement Techniques to the Study of

the Acoustics of Stonegate, a Performance Space Used in Medieval English Drama

In Acta Acustica united with Acustica, Vol. 99, No. 1, January/ February 2013, pp. 98_109

López, M, Pauletto, S and Kearney, G